Varanasi and Sarnath

100_1832Right, time for a proper entry I think! After being so lazy in Agra we kind of got off track with photos and recording what we were up to, so as it’s our last night with a decent internet connection, and we’ve seen about all (we want to see) of Varanasi, I figured now would be a good time to tell you what we’ve been doing with ourselves in India’s holy land. For Hindus and Buddhists this is a pilgrimage site, for the sacred Mother Ganges, and the tranquil stupas where the Buddha first taught his disciples the eightfold path. It is also the most important place for a Hindu to die or/and be cremated, and there are constant crowds of people in every corner of this crazy city; tourists, pilgrims, mourners and the dying alike.
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Our first impressions of Varanasi after completing our longest journey yet were not great to be honest; culture shock like that when we first arrived in the partly demolished Paharganj, but slowly it is growing on us. We are staying in a very guest house that looks as if it was decorated for the first hippie tourists in the 60s, but that too has become part of its charm. On arrival at the train station we had been instructed to go to the little tourist information booth, where we were sat down by a very old, very serious Indian man who showed us a map, circled where we were staying, drew lines where it was safe to walk and made us promise that we would not under any circumstances talk to anyone on the streets. I had already read about druggings, scams and criminal activity that went on here (my light reading on the train) and so took his advice very seriously.
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Of course Rob being Rob managed to make two friends on the walk from the car (tank) to the guest house, with me walking and worrying about being abducted the whole way! We managed to shake them off and made it there safely, pestered and flustered but safe, and we’ve managed to avoid talking to anyone else since. As soon as you step outside of the building and into the mind-boggling maze of alleyways you have to shut your mouth tight to block out the swarming flies, ignore every man, child or shopkeeper that asks ‘where you going?’ ‘you want boat?’ ‘where you going?’ ‘come have a seat.’, keep your eyes down for every kind of excrement and walk as if you have the vaguest idea as to where you are going, which of course we do not.
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Yesterday we took a wrong turning out in the alley and walked for a couple of kms, probably in circles until we realised we hadn’t seen any tourists or guest houses for a while, we had to ask for directions to an autorickshaw, and lucked out with correct information and we weren’t even asked for money for it! Sarnath was about half an hour away on alternating pot-holed and cobbled roads, and although still a little crazy, was so calm after Varanasi. It wasn’t how I had pictured it at all, although the ruins of the old monastery and stupas were amazing, some of them dating back thousands of years. We couldn’t help but be really disappointed by how the locals and Indian tourists treated the place; the starting point of a major religion, and they were walking all over the ruins and litter was everywhere. Luckily a lot of the artefacts have been safely placed in a museum, which was really interesting and most importantly (with an outdoor temp of about 36C) air-conditioned.
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Apart from our excursion we’ve had a quieter time here, going for little wanders around the local ghats, and unsuccessfully trying to find a temple with erotic carvings which is on the map, right next to our guest house! I think the nicest part of Varanasi has been people watching from the balcony, watching people go up and down the fast flowing river in boats, especially in the evening when everyone watches from boats and balconies as the nightly puja ceremony takes place, and people light little lotus flower candles and set them off down the Ganges (tiny lights in the photo below).
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And that is nearly it for our time in India! Tomorrow we head back to Delhi to spend our final few days seeing the sights that we missed the first time and getting our plans finalised for Nepal. It’s been an intense start to our trip, and while three weeks has probably been long enough for this time here, it also seems to be how long you need to actually start liking the place! I would like to come back another time, especially to see Dharamsala ,and the North Western tip which other people have said is a much more laid-back, less tourist focused journey. Rob is not so keen!

Nic & Rob x

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